Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Arrests, Fatal Firebombing, Execution Raise the Stakes in Bahrain Unrest

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Arrests, Fatal Firebombing, Execution Raise the Stakes in Bahrain Unrest

Article excerpt

Arrests, Fatal Firebombing, Execution Raise the Stakes in Bahrain Unrest

By Stephen J. Sosebee

Bahrain's announcement in early June that it has arrested 44 persons in connection with an alleged pro-Iranian plot to overthrow the hereditary ruler of the island state brings a simmering feud with neighboring Iran into the open. More than 30 of the accused have confessed to receiving training from Iran or its agents. The unrerst peaked with the March 15 firebombing of a Bahraini restaurant in which seven Bangladeshi expatriate workers were killed, and the subsequent execution by the Bahraini national government of Isa Qamber on March 26. While there had been many disturbances and acts of terrorism over a 15-month period by members of the Shi'i majority in Bahrain, Qamber's execution was the first time that the government of the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifah ruling family has resorted to capital punishment.

"Legally, our Supreme Court confirmed his death sentence for the murder of Ibrahim al-Saidi, a policeman," said Mohammed Badwan of the Interior Ministry. "No nation can allow criminals and terrorists to get away with the murder of its security personnel. This was justice."

Qamber was arrested in early 1995 with eight other Shi'i men for the beating death of al-Saidi. He was the third policeman killed in clashes with demonstrators. Amnesty International monitored Qamber's trial and condemned his execution, saying: "We seriously fear that this will now pave the way for further death sentences and executions." The human rights group claimed Qamber was "sentenced to death after a trial which ignored internationally accepted human rights standards requiring adequate legal assistance at all stages of the proceedings," and that "trial sessions were held in camera."

Qamber's execution climaxed a threemonth period of renewed civil strife in Bahrain, a commercial center of the Arabian/Persian Gulf and a principal port for the newly designated U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols Gulf waters. Although Americans have used Bahrain's naval base for many years, the U.S. government increasingly is concerned not only for the safety of Americans living in Bahrain, but also about the increasingly unstable political conditions.

The intifada-style uprising in Bahrain, an island of 550,000 people, began in December 1994 when a young Shi'i cleric, Sheikh Ali Salman, was arrested after distributing leaflets allegedly signed by 20,000 citizens calling for the restoration of the elected parliament, which was dissolved in 1975.

Clashes between Shi'i youths and police began when Sheikh Salman and two other clerics were deported in January. "They thought they would silence us by expelling our leaders," says Mohammed, a Shi'i student in the village of Ali. "The Israelis learned and now this government must also learn that a people's yearning for freedom cannot be destroyed through expulsions and murder."

Negotiations between the government and the opposition broke down in September.

There were clashes throughout the spring of 1995, prompting a raid on April 1 on the home of Sheikh Abdul Amir Al-Jamri which left 16 people injured and one dead. Al-Jamri and hundreds of others remained in jail until the fall, when the government began an effort to appease the opposition. When negotiations between the government and the opposition broke down in September, Shi'i leaders began a 10-day hunger strike. Bahrain again was tense and ready to explode.

"We waited for the government to analyze the situation properly and begin a reform process," says a cleric who asked to remain unidentified. "We gave them a period of calm in April 1995 because we expected the government to begin to change. When we saw that they were only becoming more intransigent, the opposition returned to the streets."

A new round of violence in Bahrain began with the new year of 1996, and this time it was more violent. A commercial center was bombed in Manama, the capital. …

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